Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Do I Like Trouble?

Charlottesville, downtown.
I was recently visiting a Nice Place in America -- in this case Charlottesville, VA. Charlottesville is nice. It's pretty, and quiet, and prosperous, and the day I visited the sun was shining brightly.

To be honest the niceness of Charlottesville gave me kind of a funny feeling, a feeling I've had in other nice places. Kind of a disturbed feeling, a feeling that the niceness of the place was somehow a problem. What is that?

For me, part of that feeling might have to do with the quietness. I know myself well enough to know that the activity and life of a big city are life-giving to me: riding crowded subway trains, stumbling on surprise protests, checking out the fashion trends of other humans, seeing groups of people celebrating holidays I didn't even know existed -- these all give me The Life Force. By comparison, a place like Charlottesville seems a little like quiet prosperous streets with a few quiet prosperous cars and a few quiet prosperous people in them.

But I think the feeling goes beyond busy versus quiet, and this is where things get confusing. There's something about the niceness itself -- about the lack of trouble -- that gives me pause. What's the deal with all these shiny happy people? What's with everything being clean and tidy? What's with all this gentle sunshine?

What does it mean about me that I'm even asking these questions? Do I like trouble? If I do, is that some kind of problem? I mean, what kind of person likes unhappiness, ramshackleness, dirt, and inclement weather?

There is, I think, one sense in which it's not really "liking trouble" but rather knowing trouble is out there and thinking it's being sneakily hidden. If you spend time thinking about the awful situation of most people in the world and most people the US, the niceness of a place can feel like a lie: like you're just seeing some veneer of niceness over some reality of decay. Of course anyone is going to feel creepy and weird about that.

But honestly compels me to say that I think for me there is somewhat more to it, to say that that yes, there is a sense in which I just like trouble. Because when I picture an entire world of clean and peaceful streets, and freshly washed storefronts, and prosperous people with on their way to yoga class followed by organic salad -- well, the picture makes me a little tense. Maybe it's just the non-urban quality of that mental picture that gets me. But maybe it's not: when I picture a gleaming city with teleporters and no smoking and 70-degree weather and endless pleasant recreation -- that also makes me feel weird.

I think that for me, part of the weirdness of those mental pictures has to do with the frictionlessness quality they evoke -- because I think there is some sense in which the struggles and frictions of life are good for me. The struggles and frictions of life -- you have to gear up for them, confront them, make your way through them. They press up against you. And while I'm doing those things, I have a moment of respite from the existential drama -- or existential annoyingness -- of being human, living in my own skin, and thinking "hm, what is the point of all this anyway?"

If, like me, you have the problem of tending toward too much inner reflection, and if that inner reflection can be dangerous to your well-being -- then yes, maybe you're going to like a little trouble.

I have occasionally wondered if a liking for trouble is a moral problem. If you're saying the world would be better with trouble in it than without -- wouldn't that be a bad and wrong thing to say?

But I'm not too concerned about it. For one thing, a liking of of a bit of trouble probably helps me do some good things, like take the bus. But more importantly, it's not like we're in danger of creating a world with too little trouble. Actually it's the opposite: the real problem is that we're making a world in which rich people can push trouble away and out of sight, where they don't have to deal with it. In that context? A liking for trouble is probably an OK thing.

1 comment:

Lee J Rickard said...

Perhaps the distinction between Charlottesville (I notice that your illustration is of the relatively new mall, and not an organic element of the city) and a more desirable urban space is that the latter tends to intrude. People you don't know, conversations you don't care about, confrontations you don't want to witness... they make you an element of their kerfuffle whether you want it or not. Perhaps a city should be like your family - a constant trial in the need to get along with people you don't like.